Media Between Citizens and Power | A World Political Forum Seminar

I am suffering from information insecurity. I am concerned about the integrity of the news I am getting. Are you? How do you know what is truth and what is spin? How can we make intelligent decisions if our news is biased? Why isn’t there more public outcry over the consolidation of global media? If freedom of the press is key to democracy, why doesn’t civil society demand freedom from government interference and corporate monopoly?

I moved to New York City to become an NGO at the United Nations in 1989, hoping that by having access to newspapers from Paris, Buenos Aires, Iraq, Beijing, Casablanca, Toronto, Tokyo, Seoul…I could broaden my insular United States perspective and dialogue with other global citizens in person. No doubt this decision was one of the best of my life. However, whether I was obtaining reliable information or propaganda remained a question.

So when Mikhail Gorbachev affirmed that, indeed, the integrity of mass media worldwide is at stake and with it democracy itself, I jumped at the chance to accept his invitation to travel to Venice for the World Political Forum. The subject was the deteriorating state of mass media in the hands of political and corporate power. At the same time, the conference highlighted the accelerating growth of citizen journalism that the younger generation is bringing forth through the Internet. I brought one of these technically savvy youth with me to keep me on track, my grandson Conor Fitzpatrick.

We met Danny Schechter, a member of the Kosmos Advisory Board, and together we motor-boated to a quiet private island outside the elegant and beautifully architectured city of Venice. Forty-eight international journalists from leading magazines and newspapers, the UN, the literary elite, business, and civil society were represented there. The Media Between People and Power Seminar was a powerful draw. Gorbachev’s World Political Forum and the Ethical Province of Venice were the sponsors. We were from Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, and Latin America. We were from developed countries, developing countries, and nations in transition.

We conversed in informal chats and dinnertime conversations as well as in the context of more formal presentations. I learned what an impossible job it is to prioritize what is important for the public to know, while at the same time juggling the impositions of political and economic power. I came away with deep respect for journalists who have put their careers and even their lives on the line. My work at Kosmos seemed even more important. I am proud to say that Kosmos is a mission-driven journal. It carries no advertisements nor accepts any money from donors who require favors in return. It is one of the few uniquely free journals in a world where the survival of a free and independent press is at stake—and with it the key to democracy.

The Forum was built around three topics: 1) new information technologies, 2) the democratic right to information, and 3) concentration of power in the media. Many of the celebrated global journalists who were present are in the midst of adapting to monumental changes as a result of the transition from the industrial society to the networked society. The complexity involved requires deep reflection, integral approaches, and a critical analysis of the practical problems this transition evokes. The relationship between power and the media is fundamentally changing as empowerment of citizen journalists and direct communication become more available, and news from traditional newspapers and TV is declining. Is this a worldwide phenomenon?

Worldwide Threat to Free Press and Democracy

The participants asked: What is the role of the media anyway? Public servant? Mediator? Watchdog? Political Observer? Educator? Entertainer? Communicator? Manipulator? Propagandist? Is mass media for pluralism and multi-dialogue, or for commercial TV and political gain? On the positive side, it was acknowledged that mass media has been an enabler of globalization as well as a powerful transformer of social, political and cultural values and structures. At stake, however, are human needs and human values that are being sacrificed to power interests. Journalists are under pressure from politicians, advertisers, investors, religious groups, civil society, and consumer groups as they battle to stay free.

Gore Vidal declared emphatically, “We are drowned in a Tsunami of words and images. Is the media for propaganda and fear mongering or enlightenment?” Many others asked, “Are we presenting serious news or news for entertainment?”

Indrajit Banerjee, Secretary-General of the Asian Media Information and Communication Center, Singapore, spoke eloquently about the many roles of the media in Asia—from simple information to agenda-setting for political discourse and national economic propaganda. There is a reinvigoration of the public sphere and simultaneously a disengagement from establishment media, which is consumed by competitive commercial interests seeking maximum profit rather than the public good. The change is caused by the concentration and conglomeration of media with excessive restrictions and controls that affect its diversity and independence. Banerjee concluded that media stands at the brink of subservience to economic and political power in Asia.

Danny Schechter reported that the overall condition of freedom of the press is rather shocking. In 2005 the World Press Freedom Review revealed violations in 178 countries. In every region of the world, the media is struggling to uphold its fundamental right to report news. Only 17% of the world lives under conditions of free press. Seven hundred journalists have been imprisoned in the last five years, while 376 journalists have been killed in the line of duty.

We thought the key instrument to democracy was traditional media. We trusted the news from newspapers and TV, and assumed that journalists would expose abuses of power. They gave us the information we needed to vote and to make informed decisions. Now the credibility of old media is at stake. “Threats to democracy used to be the norm for autocratic societies, but now the problem is also in democratic societies,” said Ignacio Ramonet, Editor-in-Chief of Le Monde Diplomatique, France.

Repressive laws and regulations hinder media in carrying out their watchdog function, usually in the name of national security. Not only the US but also most other countries are experiencing the same repression. We learned that government financing of the media controls worldviews in Russia. In Afghanistan, it is not the fear of government control but the power of the drug lords that threatens media veracity.

We can now expect increased manipulation of news in masterful and insidious ways for commercial and political gain. Most notable is the Bush administration’s media campaign to convince 75% of the American public that Al Qaeda was involved in the 9/11 attacks. The intent was to influence public perception in order to support invading Iraq. Even today 30 – 40% of Americans believe this propaganda. Other examples of spin, lies, smeared political campaigns, and fake news are on the rise worldwide. Hate media that incites war and genocide through fear mongering is also becoming more frequent worldwide.

We are implored to stay alert, because the first forms of information manipulation are just beginning and will become more sophisticated. Moving images are powerful because people believe they are real. It is estimated that nearly 50% of news stories are generated by public relations, and bribery for news coverage is especially common in Southeast Europe, East Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. In many parts of the world, print media has succumbed to the market—a market now characterized by concentrated media ownership with political bias that produces a decline in public service.

Jamming the media is becoming universal. Game shows, situation comedy, scandals, gossip, violence, soap operas, and more recently reality shows have filled TV screens across Asia as well as the West. The passive public is conditioned by shallow titillation in place of serious political programming, debate, and discussion. Commercial advertising continues to drive for high ratings through appeal to our baser instincts. Only Adam Michnik, Editor-in-Chief of Gazeta Wyborcza in Poland was grateful to have free press at all after years of repression under Communism. However, he also regretted the tabloid nature of current media in Eastern Europe.

The power of images is now being used for manipulation in personality politics and for the destruction of candidates. Words are often heard in part, but images are grasped as a whole—the impact is instantaneous. We learned that negative messages are five times more effective than positive ones and are therefore the preferred method of political persuasion. Outright distortion of information by power holders is on the rise, further threatening the independence of mass media.

Mikhail Gorbachev warned us that traditional media is not on top of the global agenda, and that politics is lagging behind global processes. The media must hold governments accountable, or people will demonstrate on the streets and get destructive. He praised the global Internet and satellites. Free media, moral media, and independent media can lead to the creation of new political parties and even to the realization of the innovative idea of transnational parties, he said.

In summary, it was clear that the undermining of free and independent media threatens cultural, social, economic, and political development, and also the transparency and accountability that are fundamental to democratic governance.

Globalization and the Media

In an interdependent and globalized political world, the challenge of the media is to provide extensive coverage of global politics and to examine the impact of these influences in specific national contexts. The Asian national press is more independent and accountable as a result of globalization, we heard. Citizens now have a wide range of channels and news from which to choose. The media is therefore less likely to provide biased and inaccurate information. They are also less likely to support large media, which provides a worldview that is acceptable only to corporations. Gorbachev was nonetheless concerned about the lack of global understanding in politics worldwide and the lack of global education among journalists.

The main concern of Roberto Savio, Founder of the International Press Service, was the growing gap between the rich and poor countries. We now have the tools to address the disadvantages of under-development, isolation, poverty, and the lack of political accountability and political freedom. With international support we can connect remote areas to the Internet and to mobile phones, and thereby improve the economies of small villages that are condemned to subsistence because they are tied to local knowledge and local markets only.

Shashi Tharoor, a candidate for Secretary General of the UN 2007, spoke about the universal human right to freedom of opinion and expression. Free access to new technology is essential for global awareness. Tharoor insisted that information accessed by this technology must be pluralistic, global, and tolerant. He questioned whether the Internet could overcome the bias of mass media. “Will we be able to tell the rich from the poor by who is plugged in?” Sixty percent of websites are currently in English, although Chinese is growing. “What if your only language is Swahili or Thai?” he asked.

John Lloyd, Editor of Financial Times, summarized it this way: “Mass media is distorted, but still we must save the positive aspects of reporting.”

Internet and The Information Age

The hope of the future lies with new forms of power and influence that are arising with the Information Age. As evolution moves forward, old forms that no longer work are replaced by those in harmony with the worldviews and beliefs of the new era. Remnants of the postmodern society in the Industrial Age still dominate mass media, advertising, and public relations. Command-and-control hierarchical forms of power are still widespread. However, as the Information Age emerges, we increasingly find power decentralized and horizontal. As the concentration of economic power and political manipulation of mass media threaten freedom of the press and democracy itself, alternative media arises to solve these problems, and in the process creates its own unique set of problems for future generations.

Japanese scholar Shumpei Kumon, although not present at the Seminar, gives us an important evolutionary account of power. (Global Information Infrastructure Initiative, 1994) In general, power through force is replaced by economic power; which is replaced by mass media power; which is now being replaced by the Wisdom Game. This new form of power requires building one’s reputation through Wisdom. The more one shares and the more one’s material is used by others, the higher the reputation and consequently the more widespread the influence. Money and status fade in importance as participation and self-expression replace these values.

It’s a whole new world–at least for the privileged few who have access to the new technology and are creating the Information Age through their participation. People now attach as much authority to web-based information sources—such as blogs—as they do to experts, according to the following information from the Pew Institute and Edelman surveys.

  • During the last 12 months, the Internet’s popularity as a trustworthy place for information and news has spiked significantly—from 12% to 19% in the U.S.; 9% to 13% in Europe; 10% to 21% in Brazil and 14% to 27% in China.
  • The trust void in institutions—business, government, media—is being filled by NGOs, whose trust ratings have increased in the U.S., from 36% in 2001 to 55% in 2005. NGOs are now the most trusted institutions in every market except China.
  • TV is the most important news source (56%) followed by newspapers (21%), Internet (9%) and radio (9%). One in four persons (28%) reported abandoning a news source over the last year after losing trust in its content, according to a survey by GlobalScan.

Manuel Castells, Professor of Communication Technology and Society at the Annenberg School of Communication, spoke about his area of expertise: Network Society.

“New forms of communication such as blogs and audio-visual podcasts are doubling every six months and changing society. Democracy is in crisis with global movements against capitalism, new political campaigning, and instant communication providing more opportunity to form networks for social change. Alternative information and communication infrastructure, outside of the control of both the state and corporate-based one-to-many broadcasting systems, is well under way. It is a natural outgrowth of the empowerment of the users who are building their own connectivity.”

Others spoke of the UN conferences that bring about partnerships between citizen organizations and governments to meet the challenges of the Digital Divide. The World Summit on Information Society acknowledges that multi-stakeholder participation is essential to the successful building of a people-centered, gender balanced, inclusive, equitable, and development-oriented society at national, regional, and international levels. It views knowledge as the common heritage of humankind. Communication rights are conceived of as access to information, media diversity, cultural and linguistic diversity, privacy issues, security, and surveillance.

Citizen journalism offers unexpected power to citizens through blogs and podcasting with audio-visual materials. Alternative media creates a venue for the expression of public opinion, and also for the distribution and sharing of knowledge through networking. We now have direct access to public figures unfiltered through mass media, and more power to change the political process. The Internet provides a venue for free speech even in places like China. We now have a plethora of choices of information, education, communication, and connection through networks.

Advantages and disadvantages are inherent in each progression in evolution. As we solve old problems, a new set of challenges emerges.

Some of the Advantages of Alternative Media

  • Government propaganda through state-owned media is on the decline as citizens now receive information that may contradict governments.
  • The broadcast model is replaced by meshworks, which allow us to express our opinion rather than to be passive recipients of pre-selected information.
  • Social and issue-oriented networks increase participation in civil society.
  • Creativity blossoms and new tastes develop outside of unified corporate taste. The strengthening of personal autonomy and a new type of collectivity are formed.
  • New worldviews and work ethics begin to become mainstream.

Some Disadvantages of Alternative Media and Communication

  • Traditional media is more reliable than digital press.
  • The Digital Divide will produce a gap between those with skills and resources and those without them. Many will not even realize that they need skills.
  • Manuel Castell’s research indicates that the prime challenge of the Industrial Age—repression—will be replaced by global and local exclusion and abandonment.

New Challenges for the Information | Networking Age

  • Still in question is whether or not those who own the networks and control their content will practice transparency and democracy.
  • Natural hierarchies based on wisdom will arise with the Information Age, enabling both autonomy and cooperation. Dominant hierarchies will still continue to repress and control.
  • Privacy and copyright regulations are major considerations in the new world of free information. CopyLeft (copy is free to all) as used by Dropping Knowledge (see Table of Free Voices article in this issue) is an example of a positive reform.
  • Will the benefits of the new technology be shared?
  • What kind of a society will be born from affinity and social networks formed by mutual values? Will we further divide into opposing camps over values—or can we reach the integral ideal of harmonizing multiple perspectives?
  • Will technological advances be complemented by economic, social, and cultural changes? A systemic value-based approach will be needed, such as that recommended to The Committee for the Future of the Finnish Parliament by Pekka Himanen (Challenges of the Global Information Society 2004). The most advanced rates of innovation are recorded in the Scandinavian countries. These countries practice an advanced welfare system rather than the capitalist system of Silicon Valley and the out-sourcing system of Singapore.

We at the conference were and are full of new ideas, new promises for collaboration, and new energy to meet the challenges of the times. One thing is certain. We agree that the corruption of mass media is reaching a peak that will mark the end of an era. On the horizon is an exciting new form of multi-media with the potential to solve some of the most pressing problems of mass media. However, it has created a whole new set of problems through exclusion of large numbers of people from its benefits. We are the first generation with the potential to create a new global civilization. If our dream of world community is to become a reality freedom of information to all will be essential.